Introduction to Learning Guitar for Beginners

Father and son playing guitars together

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The web has a vast number of resources available for learning how to play guitar. You can learn how to play fancy scales, play songs, learn to solo, and much more. The trouble is, there just aren't many good guitar lessons available to someone looking to start playing guitar. These guitar lessons are designed for people who own (or have borrowed) a guitar, but don't yet know the first thing about playing it.

What You'll need for These Guitar Lessons

  • A guitar with six strings. Any type of guitar will work fine
  • A guitar pick. Medium gauged picks are recommended to start with, but any will work okay in a pinch
  • A chair without arms
  • A reasonable amount of patience

What You'll Learn in Lesson One

By the end of this guitar lesson, you will have learned:

  • the names of many parts of the guitar
  • the names of the open strings
  • the process of tuning the guitar
  • how to hold and use a pick
  • how to play a chromatic scale
  • how to play a simple song using Gmajor, Cmajor, and Dmajor chords
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Parts of the Guitar

parts of a guitar

Although there are many different types of guitars (acoustic, electric, classical, electric-acoustic, etc.), they all have many things in common. The diagram to the left illustrates the various parts of a guitar.

At the top of the guitar in the illustration is the "headstock", a general term which describes the part of the guitar attached to the slimmer neck of the instrument. On the headstock are "tuners", which you will use to adjust the pitch of each of the strings on the guitar.

At the point in which the headstock meets the neck of the guitar, you'll find the "nut." A nut is simply a small piece of material (plastic, bone, etc.), in which small grooves are carved out to guide the strings up to the tuners.

The neck of the guitar is the area of the instrument you'll concentrate a great deal on; you'll put your fingers on various places on the neck, in order to create different notes.

The neck of the guitar adjoins the "body" of the instrument. The body of the guitar will vary greatly from guitar to guitar. Most acoustic and classical guitars have a hollowed out body, and a "sound hole," designed to project the sound of the guitar. Most electric guitars have a solid body, and thus will not have a sound hole. Electric guitars will instead have "pick-ups" where the soundhole is located. These "pick-ups" are essentially small microphones, which allow the capture the sound of the ringing strings, allowing them to be amplified.

The strings of the guitar run from the tuning pegs, over the nut, down the neck, over the body, over the sound hole (or pick-ups), and are anchored at a piece of hardware attached to the body of the guitar, called a "bridge."

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The Guitar Neck

guitar fret and fretboard

Examine the neck of your guitar. You'll notice there are metal strips running across its entire surface. These pieces of metal are referred to as "frets" on a guitar. Now, here's what you'll need to keep in mind: the word "fret" has two different meanings when used by guitarists. It can be used to describe:

  1. The piece of metal itself
  2. The space on the neck between one piece of metal and the next

To further explain, the area of the neck between the nut and the first strip of metal is referred to as the "first fret". The area on the neck between the first and second strip of metal is referred to as the "second fret". And so on...

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Holding a Guitar

girl holding a guitar
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Now, that we know about the basic parts of a guitar, it's time to get our hands dirty and start learning to play it. Get yourself an armless chair, and take a seat. You should be sitting comfortably, with your back against the back of the chair. Slouching significantly is a no-no; you'll not only end up with a sore back, you'll develop bad habits on the guitar.

Now, pick up your guitar, and hold it so the back of the body of the instrument comes in contact with your stomach/chest, and the bottom of the neck runs parallel to the floor. The thickest string on the guitar should be the closest to your face, while the thinnest should be closest to the floor. If this isn't the case, turn the guitar the in other direction. Typically, a right-handed person will hold the guitar so the headstock points to the left, whereas a left-handed person will hold the guitar so the headstock points to the right.

To play the guitar as a lefty would, you will need a left-handed guitar.

When playing the guitar sitting down, the body of the guitar will rest on one of your legs. In most styles of guitar playing, the guitar will rest on the leg farthest away from the headstock. This means, a person playing the guitar in a right-handed fashion will typically rest the guitar on his/her right leg, while someone playing the guitar in a lefty manner will rest it on their left leg. (NOTE: proper classical guitarist technique dictates the exact OPPOSITE of the above, but for this lesson, let's stick to our initial explanation)

Next, concentrate on your "fretting hand" (the hand closest to the neck of the guitar, when sitting in proper position). The thumb of your fretting hand should rest behind the neck of the guitar, with your fingers in a slightly curled position, poised above the strings. It is extremely important to keep these fingers curled at the knuckles, except when specifically instructed not to do so.

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Holding a Guitar Pick

guitar pick on guitar fret
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Hopefully, you've found, bought or borrowed a guitar pick. If not, you'll need to buy yourself some. Don't be stingy, go and pick up at least 10 of them — guitar picks are easy to lose (they often don't cost more than 30 or 40 cents each). You can experiment with different shapes and brands, but I highly recommend medium gauge picks to start; ones that aren't too flimsy, or too hard.

The following documentation explains how to hold and use a pick. When reading, keep in mind that your "picking hand" is the hand which is nearest to the bridge of the guitar, when sitting in the correct position.

  1. Open your picking hand, and turn the palm to face you.
  2. Close your hand to make a very loose fist. Your thumb should remain beside your index finger.
  3. Rotate your hand until you are looking at its profile, with your thumb's knuckle facing you.
  4. With your other hand, slide your guitar pick between your thumb and index finger. The pick should be approximately located behind the knuckle of the thumb.
  5. Be sure the pointed end of the pick is pointing directly away from your fist and is protruding by about a half an inch. Hold the pick firmly.
  6. Position your picking hand over the soundhole of your acoustic guitar, or over the body of your electric guitar. Your picking hand, with thumb knuckle still facing you, should hover over the strings.
  7. Do not rest your picking hand on the strings or body of the guitar.
  8. Using your wrist for motion (rather than your entire arm), strike the sixth (lowest) string of your guitar in a downward motion. If the string rattles excessively, try striking the string a bit softer, or with less of the pick surface.
  9. Now, pick the sixth string in an upwards motion.

Repeat the process several times. Try and minimize motion in your picking hand: one short picking stroke downwards, then one short picking stroke upwards. This process is referred to as "alternate picking"

Try the same exercise on the fifth, fourth, third, second, and first strings.


  • Holding the pick in this manner will invariably feel awkward at first. You will initially have to pay special attention to your picking hand whenever you play guitar.
  • Try and create fluidity in your alternate picking. Your downstrokes should sound virtually identical to your upstrokes.
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Tuning Your Guitar

tito jackson tuning guitar

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Unfortunately, before you begin playing, you'll really need to tune your guitar. The problem is, it is, at first, a relatively difficult task, one that becomes much easier over time. If you know of anyone who plays guitar, who could do the job for you, it is advised that you get them to tune your instrument. Alternately, you could invest in a "guitar tuner," a relatively inexpensive device which listens to the sound of each string and advises you (via a few blinking lights) on what you need to do in order to get the note in tune.

If neither of these options is realistic for you, however, don't fear. You can learn to tune your instrument, and with some patience and a bit of practice, you'll become a pro at doing it. 

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Playing a Scale

Now we're getting somewhere! In order to become skillful on the guitar, we'll need to build the muscles in our hands, and learn to stretch our fingers. Scales are a good, albeit a not very exciting way to do this. Before we start, look at the diagram above to understand how fingers on the "fretting hand" (the hand that plays notes on the neck) are commonly identified. The thumb is labeled as "T", the index finger is the "first finger", the middle finger is the "second finger", and so on.

The Chromatic scale

(Listen to the chromatic scale in mp3 format)

The above diagram may look confusing... fear not, it's one of the most common methods of explaining notes on the guitar and is actually quite easy to read. The above represents the neck of the guitar when looked at head on. The first vertical line on the left of the diagram is the sixth string. The line to the right of that is the fifth string. And so on. The horizontal lines in the diagram represent the frets on the guitar... the space between the top horizontal line, and the one below it is the first fret. The space between that second horizontal line from the top and the one below it is the second fret. And so on. The "0" above the diagram represents the open string for the string it is positioned above. Finally, the black dots are indicators that these notes should be played.

Start by using your pick to play the open sixth string. Next, take the first finger on your fretting hand (remembering to curl it), and place it on the first fret of the sixth string. Apply a significant amount of downward pressure to the string, and strike the string with your pick.

Now, take your second finger, place it on the second fret of the guitar (you can take your first finger off), and again strike the sixth string with the pick.

Now, repeat the same process on the third fret, using your third finger. And lastly, on the fourth fret, using your fourth finger. There! You've played all the notes on the sixth string. Now, move to the fifth string... start by playing the open string, then play frets one, two, three and four.

Repeat this process for each string, altering it only on the third string. On this third string, play only up to the third fret. When you've played all the way up to the first string, fourth fret, you've completed the exercise.


  • When playing a note, place your finger at the "top of fret" (the area of the fret farthest away from the headstock). This will produce a clearer sound.
  • Try to use alternate picking while attempting this exercise. If this is overwhelming, try using only downstrokes with your pick, but learn properly once you've gotten used to the scale.
  • Once you've finished the scale, try playing the scale backwards by starting at the first string, fourth fret, and playing all notes in exactly the reverse order.
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Your First Chords: G major

Although practicing the previous chromatic scale will certainly provide you with great benefits (like limbering up your fingers), it is admittedly not a whole lot of fun. Most people love to play "chords" on the guitar. Playing a chord involves using your pick to strike at least two notes (often more) on the guitar simultaneously. The following are three of the most common, and easy to play chords on the guitar.

This diagram illustrates the first chord we are going to play, a G major chord (often simply called a "G chord"). Take your second finger, and put it on the third fret of the sixth string. Next, take your first finger, and put it on the second fret of the fifth string. Lastly, put your third finger on the third fret of the first string. Make sure all of your fingers are curled and are not touching any strings they're not supposed to. Now, using your pick, strike all six strings in one fluid motion. Notes should ring all together, not one at a time (this could take some practice). Voila! Your first chord.

Now, check to see how you did. While still holding down the chord with your fretting hand, play each string (starting with the sixth) one at a time, listening to be sure each note rings out clearly. If not, study your hand to determine why it doesn't. Are you pressing hard enough? Is one of your other fingers touching that string, which is preventing it from sounding properly? These are the most common reasons why a note does not sound. If you're having trouble, read this feature on getting your chords to ring clearly.

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Your First Chords: C major

The second chord we'll learn, the C major chord (often called a "C chord"), is no more difficult than the first G major chord.

Place your third finger on the third fret of the fifth string. Now, put your second finger on the second fret of the fourth string. Finally, put your first finger on the first fret of the second string.

Here's where you have to be slightly careful. When playing a C major chord, you do NOT want to strum the sixth string. Watch your pick to make sure you only strum the bottom five strings when you are first learning the C major chord. Test this chord as you did with the G major chord, to make sure all notes are ringing clearly.

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Your First Chords: D major

Some beginners have slightly more difficulty playing a D major chord (often called a "D chord"), since your fingers have to cram into a fairly small area. Shouldn't be too much of a problem, however, if you can comfortably play the other two chords.

Place your first finger on the second fret of the third string. Then, put your third finger on the third fret of the second string. Lastly, place your second finger on the second fret of the first string. Strum only the bottom 4 strings when playing a D major chord.

Spend some time familiarizing yourself with these previous three chords... you will use them for the rest of your guitar-playing career. Make sure you can play each of the chords without looking at the diagrams. Know what the name of each chord is, where each finger goes, and which strings you strum or do not strum.

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Learning Songs

boy learning guitar with his father

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We now know three chords: G major, C major, and D major. Let's see if we can put them to use in a song. At first, switching chords will take far too long to be able to play any songs properly. Don't give up, though! With a bit of practice, you'll be playing away, sounding great (this tutorial on switching chords quickly might also be of some help). In our next lesson, we'll start learning about strumming, so you can come back to these songs, and be able to play them better.

Here are a few of the songs you can play with G major, C major, and D major chords:

Leaving on a Jet Plane - performed by John Denver

When playing the G and C chord, strum them 4 times each, but when playing the D chord, strum it 8 times. The tab includes an A minor chord - you can play this in the future, but for now, substitute C major. Finally, use D major when the tab calls for D7.

Brown Eyed Girl - performed by Van Morrison

There are a couple chords in this song that, while simple, we don't know yet. Skip those for now. Try strumming each chord four times.

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Practice Schedule

guitar strings
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Realistically, to start improving on guitar, you're going to need to set aside a bit of time to practice. Developing a daily routine is a good idea. Plan to spend at least 15 minutes daily practicing all you've learned will really help. At first, your fingers will be sore, but by playing daily, they'll toughen up, and in a short amount of time, they'll stop hurting. The following list should give you an idea of how to spend your practice time:

  • Get your guitar in tune.
  • Make sure you're sitting, holding the guitar, and using your pick properly. You'll have to correct your natural bad habits at first until it becomes second nature.
  • Play the chromatic scale several times. Try playing it backward.
  • Play each of the three chords you've learned. Check to be sure each note is ringing. If not, find out why, and correct the problem.
  • Try moving from one chord to another. Before switching chords, mentally picture exactly where each finger is going to move in order to play the next chord. Only then should you switch chords. This is the key to switching chords quickly.
  • If you're having trouble getting your chords to ring clearly, read this feature on getting your chords to ring clearly.
  • Try playing some, or all of the songs listed above. At first, try only to think of the songs as a way in which to practice playing chords.
  • Don't get discouraged. This is hard stuff at first, and you'll probably feel like you can't do it. You certainly can. Everyone struggles, so just put in your 15 minutes, and then don't worry about it until the next time you play. This is supposed to be fun!

That's it for now! Once you're comfortable with this lesson, move on to lesson two, which includes information on the names of the guitar strings, plus more chords, more songs, and even several basic strumming patterns. Good luck, and have fun!